Monday, 21 May 2012

Let it Rain?

I was painting a sign outside my Mexican restaurant once, years ago.  It was very expensive high-pigment paint and I was proceeding slowly.  The tin had warned not to let the paint get wet. About mid-afternoon, clouds formed, pregnant with North Carolina rain.  I worked faster, with a growing sense of unease.  I might be hurrying through a doomed project, but I didn’t know what else to do.

A man passed by.  I recognised him as Hey Bob, a respected local builder before his arthritis got him.  I hailed him—“Hey, Bob!”-- and began to explain my fears about the approaching rain.  I explained that the pigment in the paint was specially formulated, but that it might run and streak if it got wet.  Hey Bob listened carefully, nodding at each point.  I was still halfway up the ladder, unable to decide what to do.  At last he said,

          “You know what I’d do if it was me?”

          ”No, tell me,” I said eagerly.

          He grinned. “I’d let it rain.”

I’ve been trying to ever since.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Flash Fiction

I read this morning that tomorrow is National Flash Fiction Day.  That’s when stories of 150 words or less are published and given awards.

In case you think it’s easier to write something short, think again. If you can whip out 2,000 words in a good day of writing, it will take you two good days to cut it down to 150. I decided to have a go anyway.

N.B. If you find yourself counting, have a word with someone about OCD.

You’re Not Here

 He didn’t stop, just kept charging straight to the bar, big fists balled by his side. Janine stopped talking and moved aside. Her split skirt flashed smooth leg.

‘Where’s Jim?’ he growled.  Growled, like a pit bull.

‘Jim who?’ I said, and wiped some glasses. Casual.    

‘Just Jim,’ Pit Bull said.

‘He’s not here.’   

‘Tell that mf he better start wearing rear view mirrors because I’m coming up behind him.’

Then he was gone, like a summer squall. It was quieter in the bar than I’d seen it. Janine smoked and looked at the wall. I had something to say, something funny, but I couldn’t remember it.

‘I think his name’s Elmo,’ Irish Mike said over his Bud.

‘Nobody’s named Elmo.’

‘He is.’

At closing time I asked if she wanted me to walk her home. She didn’t answer. 

Later she said, ‘You’re not here, Jim--remember?’

Monday, 14 May 2012

Playing Chicken

My email this morning informed me that a legitimate transaction I made with my credit card had been declined for “security reasons”. No problem, I thought—I’ll just ring the bank.

Poor fool, you must be thinking.
What ensued was two hours of dialling and endlessly repeating my date of birth, imploring the voices on line not to leave me unattended in a queue, and being treated to a number by Girls Aloud that I want to assure you I will never buy. My only satisfaction came from responding to the stock statement that calls might be recorded for training purposes by making some pointed suggestions. Some of them may have been unseemly, but I don’t think I can actually be prosecuted.

Being ensnared by red tape and indifferent bureaucracy is not limited to modern life in this country. What’s different is the remedy.
When I worked in Botswana years ago, I was in charge of a project of helping 14 village women set up small poultry businesses. Because there were no large hatcheries in the country, laying hens had to be ordered from across the border in Johannesburg. When all the coops had been built and the organisation was all in place, I ordered 800 point-of-lay chickens.

The day of delivery came.  I drove to the border post and parked. A trickle of cars were passing through a gate that was propped open with a cement block. Two Botswana guards were waving them through, not paying much attention. Twenty yards away were the South Africans. They looked more business-like.  I thought I could see a large truck with cages stacked onto the flat bed, so I walked past the guards and presented my passport to the South Africans. Both were white, as they would have been in those days of apartheid. One of them went into a little office and spoke on a telephone. He came back to tell me that I could not cross.
My name was on a list, because I worked for an international gang of terrorists known as the Quakers, who disapproved of apartheid. I pleaded with them just to let me speak to the lorry driver, who I could see lounging under a tree, smoking. One of the guards took momentary pity on me and whistled.  He beckoned the driver over, who said that we had only a few minutes to get the truck underway or the chickens would die from heat and suffocation. He went back and started the truck.

I stood on the Botswana side, feeling relieved. The chicken truck inched forward until the Botswana guards closed the gate. One of them looked at me. He had a round face and his shirt was half unbuttoned.
“Where is your veterinary certificate?” he asked me.

This was the first I had heard about a veterinary certificate. I felt my stomach sink toward my boots. “I haven’t got one,” I said.

The two guards spoke among themselves.  One of them was friendlier-looking than the other. He reached into his satchel and handed me an official-looking document. “This must be signed by a veterinarian,” he said.

“But the chickens will all die unless we move the truck,” I pleaded.

“Take this away and have it signed by a veterinarian,” the guard said.

“But you don’t understand!” I moaned, thinking of arriving back in Mogoditshane with tons of rotting poultry corpses.

“Listen to me,” the friendly guard said. “It must be signed by a veterinarian.” He looked at me directly, as if he were planning to kiss me. I had seen that look before. You see it when you’re being stupid, like when you’ve missed a joke that makes everyone else laugh. I stood still waiting for the light to dawn.

“Oh,” I said. I went back to my truck, got out a ballpoint and very carefully signed the document A Veterinarian, being careful to dot my I’s and cross the T.
The guard took it from my hand and raised the gate without looking at it. The truck rolled through, and, that night, 792 healthy laying hens were scratching in the dirt of Mogoditshane.

I hear they’re still moving call centres to places like Kolkata. Wish they’d move them to Botswana.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

How Dry I Am

It’s pouring outside, making May the sequel to the wettest April on record. There are buckets in the upstairs bathroom due to a leaking roof.  If this drought gets any worse I don’t know what we’ll do.

Yes, the government is still going on about the drought in the Southeast. Which means it’s illegal to go out in the rain and wash your car. It’s too hard to water your lawn holding an umbrella, anyway.

In a single day, I heard two explanations for why all this rain hasn’t ended the official drought.  One government voice—Agriculture, I think—said that the ground was “too hard” to allow the water to soak in, so it was all running off somewhere. But a spokesperson from Environment said that water was not collecting in the reservoirs, because it was all soaking into the ground. One of them is bound to be right, I figure. Either way, I don’t flush as often.

I’ve seen droughts in Africa, and they don’t look like this one. There you get skinny animals and clouds of dust that make little mini-tornados. Everybody walks real slow.  One season in Botswana,  the national reservoir near Gaborone got so low that yachtsmen had to stop practising for the Olympics. They were never very good at it anyway; they just needed one more sport to enter in order to qualify. The village boys I worked with had to stop growing Swiss chard in a small patch at our community centre, an important intervention in what was a virtual epidemic of tuberculosis.

One Saturday night I drove two boys to a church hall in a neighbouring village to see a film.  I don’t remember what it was about, just the looks of awe on their faces as they watched scenes of an English village. On the way home, Thabo prompted Nsimane to ask me a question.  He did, with an air of trepidation.

“Art,” he said, “Why does it always rain where white people live?”